Culture Shock in Saigon

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ohhh my… Ho Chi Minh City! Motorbike traffic honks and swerves its way through the trash-strewn streets in a constant stream, while people squat on the broken, buckled sidewalks or sit on kid-size plastic chairs eating bowls of noodles and drinking beer from street vendors.  I've seen multiple people spitting on the sidewalk and then hocking mucus up into their throats, which sounds like the spitter is going to throw up. 

The traffic may well be HCMC’s best-known tourist attraction.  People talk about "the traffic" with equal parts fear and awe, as though it were a living organism.  The narrower the roads are, the easier it is to cross.  The wider ones are tricky because you could stand there all day before there’s a break in the traffic.  Literally, there is no break, just a constant stream of honking motorbikes and cars.  Drivers completely ignore crosswalks and most traffic lights, so there’s no guaranteed safe place or way to cross.  Basically you just look to your left to make sure there’s nothing immediately next to you, and then slowly step out into the traffic.  You cross at a steady pace and the bikes and cars just swerve around you.

When we got in late last night, we were immediately swindled by a random Vietnamese man kept trying to help us find a taxi.  I tried to shrug him off, but my kind traveling companion was enjoying their conversation in Vietnamese, so I let it be.  When he got into the front seat of our taxi and explained to her about the special “airport exit fee,” she handed him the 100,000 dong, only to see him jump out and run away.  Boy was I mad.  “If they’d been speaking English, I never would’ve fallen for that!” I thought.  I would’ve poked her in the side and said, “We’ll pay the fee when we see the sign on the gate.”  What a sucker she was! 

I once saw a Cathy comic strip that ended with the caption, “You become who you sneer at.”  Truer words were never drawn inside a thought bubble.  Later that week, confused by the enormous denominations of Vietnamese dong, I handed the driver 300,000 dong for a 28,000 dong cab fee because I misread the meter and thought the bill was 280,000.  He, in a much shrewder move than my own, handed me back change of 20,000 dong, confirming my belief in my own incorrect math.  Luckily, the mistake only cost me about $17, which probably meant much more to him than it did to me.  I’m calling it a $17 “learning fee” and I’ll be much more careful going forward.  Next time I visit a country that uses large denominations, I vow to make up a conversion chart on an index card and carry it in my purse. 

We’re staying at a B&B called the Xuan Mai Hotel.  (Address: 140 Cong Quynh, District 1.  B&B-style hotels are common here, so it was tough to pick one from the U.S. due to the sheer number, all with both good and bad reviews on TripAdvisor.  After reading hundreds of reviews and taking the sum total of the opinions for comparison, I chose this place for its location and the reputed friendliness of the owner, named Duc.  Now, I know that I made the right choice.  I checked under the beds and in the closets of our spacious, well air-conditioned room for any sign of bugs or dirt and found nothing at all.  Our room does not have a window, which is standard in Vietnam, and really a blessing in disguise when you realize that the loud traffic noise continues all night.  The bathroom is new and clean, with shiny tile walls and floor and a Vietnamese-style shower.  It hangs on the wall above the toilet so the water splashes all over the sink and toilet.  

This morning, we savored a massive, home-cooked breakfast on the fourth floor terrace.  I wandered behind a curtain to check things out, expecting to find a few boxes of cereal and some toast awaiting me.  Instead, I startled Duc, who was quietly enjoying a bowl of something that looked like Fruit Loops.  “Would you like to cook your own breakfast?” he teased, and proceeded to cook up scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, an enormous roll the shape of a football and about two-thirds the size, coffee and tea, fresh fruit (pineapple, watermelon, banana) and the most amazing honey I’ve ever tasted.  It had a buttery, rich flavor unlike the clover honey we buy in plastic bears here in the U.S.  It was in a small china pot on our table and probably meant for the tea, but I bathed my bread in it, the way I used to float my pancakes in syrup as a kid.  The best part of this meal was that it didn’t give me the dreaded traveler’s diarrhea, which I’m terrified of catching from any fresh ingredients here.

Duc may cook a fantastic meal, but it’s his kindness and friendliness that have made me feel like we’re staying with a family who genuinely cares about us.  For example, his advice on changing our money at a jewelry store, rather than a bank, gave us a much better exchange rate.  His warning to only drink Joy, La Vie or Aquafina bottled water, because other brands might not be safe, has kept us both, so far, free of any tummy ailments.  Once, he even noticed Tina and I unsuccessfully trying to cross the street to the B&B, tentatively sticking a foot out into the street and yanking it back as the surging stream of traffic refused to let up.  Crossing the street with the fearlessness of a local, he walked straight through the traffic, grabbed our sleeves and pulled us back with him. 

Today, we shopped.  I bought two cute dresses and the entire “Sex and the City” series for $6, as well as fabric for a co-worker.  One shop girl we met was delighted with Tina’s proficiency in Vietnamese and wrote down her cell phone number so she can show her around the next time she’s here. 

This charming girl aside, many of the sales girls we ran into at various shops throughout the day were so attentive that they made me nervous.  The standard practice here is that the second I enter a store, one or two salesgirls immediately start following me at close range.  They shuffle behind me, step for step, and point out everything I’m vaguely glancing at.  Coffee! They say and point to the box.  “Yes,” I wanted to answer, “Not only is it written in English on the box, but there’s also a picture!”  I know I sound mean, but this method of shopping wastes a lot of my time because when I go into a store with one specific souvenir in mind but accidentally glance at something else, they’ll open it or unfold it or start describing it and I feel guilty for wasting their time and say, “No, not what I’m looking for” or, “I want it in the other color.”  What I really want to say is, “Get out of my way so I can grab the one I want and save us both time.”  One particular girl today invaded my personal space and possessed especially loud shuffling feet, so I amused myself by trying to ditch her with a combination of a fast pace and a winding, circuitous route around the store. 

We relaxed in our delightfully frigid hotel room during the day’s peak heat, then had dinner at Quan Au Ngon (38 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1) with Tina’s friend who lives here.  This restaurant, like it’s sister in Hanoi, is a favorite among the expats (voted #2 restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City on TripAdvisor, with its sister restaurant in Hanoi #1) and I understand why.  The large menu showcases a huge variety of cheap and delicious Vietnamese dishes, while the open-air courtyard creates a relaxed and tropical atmosphere.  We ordered fresh guava juice, Vietnamese pancake with pork and shrimp, salad, spring rolls, sticky rice, bun with pork, banh cuon (meat-filled rice noodles), banh beo (rice noodle loops or cakes, plain) and bah bot loc (same with shrimp), Vietnamese sausage (mystery meat, I’m afraid) and a few coconut milk pudding desserts – with corn, with tapioca and fruit, with mung bean inside yummy rice balls.  We ate like kings and our glorious meal cost $6 a person. 

Ending the night with a little glamour – and refreshing air conditioning – we paid a visit to the Diamond Plaza (34 Le Duan Blvd, Ben Nghe ward, District 1).  This is a high-end complex that encompasses 13,000 square feet of apartments, offices and a four-story shopping mall.  The first three floors of the mall host clothing, perfume and electronics stores such as Lancome, Chanel and Made in Viet Nam while the fourth floor offers bowling alleys, billiards and arcade games.  We poked through a couple of clothing stores and the prices seemed comparable to Nordstrom in the U.S.  In fact, the elegance and luxury of the plaza seemed incongruent with the rest of the city and made me feel like I was back in the U.S.

By the end of today, I had decided that constantly guarding my purse and camera on the street is both nerve-wracking and annoying because I can’t relax and take all of the pictures of street scenes that I want to. 

Today, as we approached the touristy Ben Thanh market, we passed through a gauntlet of locals lounging against their motorbikes who warned us that our looks and purses made us walking targets.  Pointing at our faces, then our purses, and then back to our faces, they shook their heads no.  We continued towards the market with growing trepidation, and, sure enough, witnessed two little Aladdins in bare feet hand their mother a huge chunk of cash and scamper back into the market.  Forget that!  As we turned away, the men said, “Yeah, good choice.  Too expensive there anyway.  Better market in Chinatown, where the locals go.”  It was nice that they looked out for us, but frustrating to run into petty theft yet again.  I’d stashed most of my cash and all of my credit cards, as well as passport, health insurance, and other important documents in my money belt under my clothes, but I’m still nervous that someone running or driving by will just grab my whole purse.  I like this purse and I don't want to lose it or the umbrella, sunglasses, etc. inside of it.
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